The pecking order from the Southeastern Conference when it comes to college basketball and the NCAA tournament usually begins — and often ends — with Kentucky. The phrase “Roll Tide” is seldom heard after Nick Saban lifts the football-shaped crystal egg for the umpteenth time in early January following another College Football Playoff title until spring practice begins in March.
Nate Oats has provided unexpected excitement in Tuscaloosa this season, however, as Alabama’s basketball team is on the verge of wrapping up the SEC regular-season title and could be a No. 2 seed when March Madness is contested throughout the state of Indiana.
Given the separation Gonzaga and Baylor have created from the field, there continues to be potential value in sleuthing out potential sleeper picks for the 68-team field should those two stumble. Alabama is another team that fits the bill — its shortest odds to win its first national championship in hoops are +1600 at BetMGM, while William Hill offers the longest ones at +2200. In between, PointsBet and FanDuel list the Crimson Tide at a respectable +2000.
USA TODAY writer believes Alabama in position to make noise in NCAA Tournament https://t.co/SZ04DAw0vx
— Roll Tide Wire (@RollTideWire) February 22, 2021
Oats was tasked with rebuilding the Tide in 2019 after Alabama poached him from Buffalo, where he successfully built on the program Bobby Hurley created before he left for Arizona State in 2015. The Bulls made three NCAA tournament appearances in Oats’ four seasons in charge, reaching the second round in both 2018 and 2019.
It has taken less than two seasons for his players to buy in as Alabama has progressed from 16-15 last season to 18-6 currently, while on the verge of clinching its first conference title since 2002. Oats and his hard-charging, up-tempo team try to run opponents into the floor — the Tide rank in the top 30 nationally in scoring at 80.3 points per game and are also eighth in adjusted tempo, according to KenPom. They rack up 74.3 possessions per game while taking just 14 seconds per possession on offense.
Alabama features a diverse perimeter attack, leading the nation in 3-pointers made (261) and ranking third in 3-pointers per game (10.9). Jaden Shackleford paces four players averaging in double figures with a team-high 14.1 points and is one of six players with at least 20 treys and one of four with 48 or more assists.
John Petty Jr. is the team’s volume shooter from the arc with a team-high 58 3-pointers, but he’s also making 38.9% of them. The trio of Herbert Jones, Joshua Primo, and Jahvon Quinerly also cannot be left alone on the perimeter — all three are shooting 40% or better from deep, with Jones connecting at a 52.6% clip (20 for 38).
Quinerly has emerged as the team’s sixth man, with the Villanova transfer third in scoring at 11.8 points per game while shooting 44.9% from long range. All that shooting in an up-tempo system has put the Tide among the top 30 in KenPom offensive efficiency, averaging 112.9 points per 100 possessions.
Herbert Jones (@_hoopinglife) one of 10 named as a semifinalist for the @NaismithTrophy Defensive Player of the Year!
???? https://t.co/9D31SV1WqG#BlueCollarBasketball | #RollTide pic.twitter.com/QWANjsCFzv
— Alabama Men’s Basketball (@AlabamaMBB) February 25, 2021
Jones also gets things done on the defensive end of the floor. The 6-foot-8 forward was selected as one of the 10 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year finalists and leads Alabama in rebounding (5.7), steals (1.7), and blocks (1.1). Though the Tide rank 48th in defensive field goal percentage (40.7%), they rank fourth in KenPom’s efficiency there, limiting teams to 88.2 points per 100 possessions.
Alabama is one of just 10 teams to be ranked in the top 30 offensively and defensively in KenPom and one of only three to also rank in the top 30 in adjusted tempo.
While the Crimson Tide have clearly overachieved in this unique season, a majority of the SEC has not followed suit. Kentucky’s annual experiment of John Calipari meshing the talents of a precocious freshman class has gone spectacularly haywire this time — the 8-13 Wildcats will have to win the SEC tournament to make the 68-team NCAA field.
There is also a notable falloff in terms of SEC perception after Alabama. Tennessee, Arkansas, and Missouri all have made Top 25 poll appearances, but none of them look to have the ingredients Alabama has for a second-weekend appearance, let alone a Final Four run. The Volunteers have enjoyed some recent tournament success under Rick Barnes. Arkansas is similar to Alabama with Eric Musselman also revitalizing its program. Missouri has not won a NCAA tournament game since 2010.
That parallel track with Arkansas, which beat the Tide by 15 points Wednesday, means Oats may have to coach up his players when adversity hits in the tournament. Jones and Petty were both on the 2018 team that reached the second round, while Quinerly came from a Villanova program steeped in NCAA tournament success.
Alabama is ninth in the NCAA Net rankings, which help determine seeding, but it did nothing to distinguish itself in non-conference play. Losses to Oklahoma, Clemson, Western Kentucky, and Stanford will not hurt its profile for Selection Sunday, but those defeats leave a three-point victory over Furman at its signature non-conference victory.
That will likely be the reason the Crimson Tide will not see the No. 1 seed line — even if they pull off the double of SEC regular-season and conference tournament titles — when their name is called, which of course leads to a 50% chance of potential showdown with Gonzaga or Baylor in a regional final.
A reasonable road to Indianapolis
Alabama has gone 14-3 since Oats opted to bring Quinerly off the bench as a spark. Wednesday’s loss was disappointing, but the Tide had also drubbed Arkansas by 31 at home previously.
They are also finally at full strength at a key junction in the season. Six-foot, 10-inch forward Jordan Bruner had 14 points Wednesday in his second game back after being sidelined nine games due to a torn meniscus, while 6-6 redshirt freshman Juwan Gary had nine points and nine rebounds in just 17 minutes following a two-game absence due to a shoulder injury.
The good news is it appears all but impossible that the Tide will be seeded lower than third in a region, which means a potential matchup with Gonzaga and Baylor in the regional finals is a worst-case scenario. While there are four Big Ten teams in the mix as potential opponents in the third round or later, matchups with Illinois and Iowa appear more favorable and winnable than those versus Michigan and Ohio State.
With the lack of pedigree and Oats making his first NCAA Tournament appearance with Alabama since taking over, the Tide are a more risky option among the second tier of teams trying to cut down the nets in Indianapolis. At the same time, Alabama still offers a decent potential return for those with a little faith on a flier.
Photo courtesy Marvin Gentry, USA TODAY